China recently announced the creation of a new regulatory body to improve its use of data as a strategic economic resource. As part of ongoing efforts to promote China’s digital economy, the National Data Administration will work towards building smart cities, digitizing government services, and facilitating data-driven development. Despite China’s authoritarian data practices—which should be condemned—a coordinated approach to data is one every nation should adopt. Policymakers in the United States should learn from this example and strengthen their commitment to data-driven innovation and increase commercial access to data.
The new data institution acts as a central body to coordinate the planning, integration, and application of data to build a strong digital economy. The National Data Administration will be responsible for promoting cross-industry data sharing, as well as organizing and implementing a national big data strategy. It will also be tasked with ensuring that data can be easily shared between different government bodies and promoting data-driven public services.
Commercial access to data plays a critical role in sectors like health care and education, where innovation depends on access to high-quality datasets. For example, pharmaceutical companies require access to large amounts of sensitive data in order to develop medicine for things like rare diseases or improve genomic testing. Similarly, in education, personalized learning tools require high-quality student data to aid learning and improve student outcomes.
Some countries understand the importance of data, but most do not. China treats data as an economic resource and a strategic piece of the economic and social development puzzle. In contrast, most of the data conversation in the United States focuses on privacy while ignoring the individual and societal benefits that come from data. U.S. policymakers frequently adopt anti-data rhetoric, making unjustified claims about digital surveillance and the sale of Americans’ data. But this type of thinking impedes ambitious data initiatives, even in cases where there are minimal privacy risks and positive social benefits. Notably, the United States has not considered anything on par with China’s new data administration.
To be clear, the United States should not adopt China’s predatory data practices, like nationalizing the personal data collected by private companies or intense citizen surveillance. But, the United States needs to expand the use of data, given that commercial access to data is an issue that touches many sectors. Whereas China’s government views data as a productive, strategic resource, U.S. policymakers continue to urge the private sector to minimize data collection. And while various U.S. government agencies have many important data programs, there has been no attempt to establish a comprehensive national data strategy to leverage data as an economic asset or build national data infrastructure.
In the absence of a more coordinated national data initiative, federal agencies can still take important steps to learn from China. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services should create a public-private partnership to maximize data sharing across the healthcare industry to improve the quality of care, expedite research, and lower costs. Or the Department of Housing and Urban Development could work with real estate developers to better incorporate smart city technologies into new development projects. The United States needs more proactive efforts in collecting data and coordinating its use, and learning from other countries is a good place to start.
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